Hays Code - AKO-NZ

The Hays Code
With help from:
Melanie Webber
Western Springs College
Origins of the Code
• From the early days of
Hollywood there was concern
that movies were a corrupting
• Films like Douglas Fairbanks
1916 “Mystery of the Leaping
Fish” did little to dispel this fear.
• In the absence of Federal laws governing what
could and couldn’t be shown on screen, states,
cities and towns across the country took
censorship into their own hands.
• What was acceptable in New York could be very
different to what was deemed acceptable in
Albuquerque, and films were being chopped up
willy nilly.
• Following some particularly louche films and a
series of off-screen scandals involving Hollywood
stars, in 1922 the major Hollywood studios and
distributors formed a trade association called The
Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of
America (MPPDA) and hired former US
Postmaster General Will H. Hays to head it up.
The Hays Office
• They agreed to voluntarily regulate film content, and set up The Studio
Relations Committee (SRC) or The Hays Office to oversee and control
the moral values of the stories they filmed.
• Part of the offices work was to consolidate the various restrictions of
different state censors.
• In 1927 they produced a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls”, but with no
penalties for failing to follow this code it wasn’t that effective.
• In 1928 only 42 of the 572 films submitted to the various censorship
boards passed review uncut.
(Not) Enforcing the code
• By 1929 “Talking Pictures” had arrived and church groups became even more
concerned about the scope for moral corruption due to the pictures.
• Fearful of government intervention, on 31 March 1930 the studios adopted a code
written by a Jesuit priest – Jim A Lord.
• The Motion Picture Production Code (known informally as "The Hays Code"),
was published on March 31, 1930 provided for an appointed "jury" (composed of
three heads of production chosen from studios who were MPPDA members) that
would be the final arbiters of whether a film conformed "to the spirit and letter of
the Code".
• Determining exactly what the "spirit and letter of the Code" was, however,
generated a tremendous amount of debate for the next four years and proved to
be an enormous loophole for producers wishing to challenge the guidelines.
• A lot of people objected to the ‘Victorianism’ of the code.
The Catholic League of Decency
• By 1934, church groups were furious at the
way the code was being flouted.
• The Catholic League of Decency was
established and encouraged Catholics to
sign a pledge "to remain away from all
motion pictures except those which do not
offend decency and Christian morality”. The
Catholic League of Decency would obvious
decide what these films were.
• Fearful of what this might do to their
audiences, the producers finally acted, and
in 1934 an amendment to the code
established the Production Code
Administration (PCA) and required all films
released on or after July 1, 1934, to obtain a
certificate of approval before being released.
Joseph Breen
• A prominent Catholic campaigner,
Joseph Breen was put at the head of
this office.
• The PCA was given the authority to
review and delete what it felt was
morally objectionable material from
both the final script before a movie
was shot, and the finished movie
before it was released.
• A $25,000 fine could be imposed on a
company that made changes after the
certificate was issued.
• Dr Brian McDonnell describes this as
“a Jewish industry selling Catholic
values to a Protestant audience”.
The Code
• The Motion Picture Production Code
began by stating that, "No picture shall be
produced which will lower the moral
standards of those who see it." While
acknowledging that, "Motion pictures are
very important as Art", the Code made it
clear that, " . . . the sympathy of the
audience shall never be thrown to the side
of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin." The
Code went on to provide specific moral
obligations, working principles, and
production guidelines for the treatment of
various plots and plot elements.
This time, censorship happened
Even Betty Boop wasn’t immune
• At the Hays Office insistence, she changed from a flirty
flapper to a much more demure single career girl.
Of particular relevance
• Crimes against the law - These shall
never be presented in such a way as
to throw sympathy with the crime as
against law and justice or to inspire
others with a desire for imitation.
• The sanctity of the institution of
marriage and the home shall be
upheld. Pictures shall not infer that
low forms of sex relationship are the
accepted or common thing.
• Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful
embraces, suggestive postures and
gestures, are not to be shown
• Crime must not pay – criminals
must be punished. You’re never
going to get away with murder.
• People who aren’t in conventional
happy relationships will come to a
bad end – marry and raise a family
or die.
• Kisses couldn’t last more than a
second or two.
Any character who transgresses these traditional sexual and social norms is structurally
required by the Hays Code to be punished and repressed in the film’s resolution.
The demise of the code
• Although by 1940 Code enforcement had
become standard operating procedure in
America's motion picture industry, there was
a gradual weakening of compliance during
and after World War II.
• Open resistance to the Code started with a
few major independent producers and, at
first, focused on pictures (like Noirs) geared
to more sophisticated urban audiences.
• Filmmakers also became adept at working
around the code – what looked fine on the
page could be quite different on the screen.
The irony of it all
• What’s particularly ironic is that much of what makes noir noir is specifically
against the Hays code
– The sexual tension between the protagonist and the femme fatale
– The excessive drinking
– Plots that centred around adultery and crime
• Ellipsis and innuendo are used to suggest a lot of these things.
• Of course what you very seldom see in noir is the protagonists getting away with
it. And that just adds to the fatalism that looms over these films. Their destiny is
beyond their control. Once they commit a crime they’re on “a trolley car they
must ride to the end of the line, and the last stop is the cemetery.”
• Myths about censorship